Liana M. Silva

Editor at Women in Higher Education

How Many Women Are Adjuncts Out There?

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Image: Operating the stock boards at Waldorf-Astoria, 1918, by Underwood & Underwood (NARA)

In February we celebrated National Adjunct Walkout Day. It was supposed to create awareness of the plight faced by so many college instructors today: the utter lack of job security and the poor compensation for the amount of labor involved. Here we have a profession in charge of helping train and teach our society’s citizens, and yet 75.5 percent of its practitioners live in this precarious position.

But where does that 75-percent figure come from? It comes from the Department of Education’s 2009 study of “Employees in Postsecondary Institutions,” and it includes graduate teaching assistants as well as contingent faculty members. Many of us in academe, in the news media, and even in the White House’s 2014 report “The Just-in-Time Professor,” have been using the data from that 2009 report.

But the truth is that 75.5 percent figure is inaccurate. To understand the academic employment picture in the United States, we need updated national data about contingent faculty members. The 2009 study was based on statistics collected from institutions, which may define contingent labor differently from place to place. One useful tool for gathering new data could be the National Study of Postsecondary Faculty, but it lost its funding in 2003. The Education department needs to bring back that national survey, so that we can see the true numbers of contingent instructors and understand how dire their situation is in comparison with tenure-track and tenured professors. Without up-to-date data, all we have to work with are old data and potentially outdated assumptions.

Right now, the latest big overview of the contingent labor force is the 2012 report, “A Portrait of Part-Time Faculty Members,” published by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW). That survey received approximately 30,000 responses, only 20,000 of them from people who specifically identified themselves as contingent faculty members (the remaining 10,000 did not explain who they were). So CAW’s results represent only about 1.5 percent of the estimated 1.3-million faculty in non-tenure-track positions (as cited in the Ed department’s 2009 study).

If these numbers feel jumbled,it’s because they are. We need current data to understand the contingent workforce better and to increase their visibility. We need to know about their work patterns, their socioeconomic status, and their working conditions across academia.

As editor of the newsletter, Women in Higher Education, I am particularly interested in the extent to which women have come to dominate the ranks of contingent instructors. I’ve received pitch after pitch on that topic for the newsletter. Again and again I would acknowledge to those writers: Yes, contingent labor is a problem that adversely affects women. It’s a feminist issue.

The 2009 Education department study is over 6 years old. The 2003 survey, which is much more extensive, is 12 years old. We need a comprehensive picture of who adjunct instructors are, and how women are disproportionately represented among their ranks. We also need accurate, recent data on tenured and tenure-track faculty. We need to understand who is being hired to do what kind of work. Adjunct advocates cannot continue to argue for changes in working conditions if we can't show how this situation has worsened since 2009. More important, in order to understand the exploitation of part-time faculty as an issue that affects women we need recent data that shows accurate numbers of female adjuncts.

As a woman of color, I am especially interested in knowing more about what the women in those contingent ranks look like. To what extent does race come into the picture? According to the Education Department’s 2009 report, 51.6 percent of contingent faculty are women. The same report says 81.9 percent of contingent faculty are white. To what extent is contingent labor a problem for white women? Or, from another angle, to what extent is this a white labor issue, where class is meant to trump race?

For policymakers, college administrators, parents, and students to understand how to approach the contingent-labor problem, we need to figure out how racial and gender play into the equation. As Tressie McMillan Cottom points out, “black students and faculty had been protesting the ghettofication of black scholars in adjunct roles” since the late 1960s. In other words, although the issue is now receiving mainstream national visibility, we cannot ignore the historical context of contingent labor..

I do not say this in order to diminish the importance of events like National Adjunct Walkout Day, or the effect that such protests can have on the future of underemployed, untenured academics. Faculty working conditions affect students’ learning conditions.

However, those who have a stake in higher education need to understand better who we are talking about when we say “adjuncts.” If more than 80 percent of contingent instructors are white, what is keeping people of color from those positions? Is adjunctification just another way of keeping people of color outside of the college classroom? To what extent are organizing efforts dealing with the concerns of people of color? How many organizers are women? How many are people of color? How many are disabled?

We need detailed, accurate information on this group of professors in order to better advocate for them, and better understand how gender, race, and disability might play a role. Painting the contingent academic labor movement with a broad brush will only ignore how gender is part of the equation of underpaid, undervalued, and cast-off labor. The same applies to racial and ethnic minorities, as well as those with disabilities.

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